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VOL. 124 | NO. 122 | Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Unions Seek Bigger Role in Charter Schools

LIBBY QUAID | AP Education Writer

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WASHINGTON (AP) - As the Obama administration pushes for more charter schools, a teachers' union is pushing for a bigger role in them.

It's a new development for the charter school movement, a small but growing – and controversial – effort to create new, more autonomous public schools, usually in cities where traditional schools have failed.

On Tuesday in New York, the United Federation of Teachers expects to formalize a contract with teachers at Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, a high school run by Green Dot, a nonprofit group that operates charter schools. Ten other New York charter schools are unionized.

And last week in Chicago, teachers voted to unionize three Chicago International Charter School campuses run by Civitas, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a point of talking about unions in a speech Monday in Washington to a national charter school conference.

"Charters are not inherently anti-union," Duncan said. "Many charters today are unionized."

That is true, but unions are rare in the nation's 4,600 charter schools, which make up about 3 percent of the nation's 132,000 public schools.

Charters usually operate free from restrictions like tenure and other rules found in union contracts. Many supporters of charter schools don't want that to change.

Duncan is pushing aggressively to expand the number of charter schools. He has threatened to withhold millions of stimulus dollars from states that put limitations on charter schools.

In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, he mentioned Rhode Island, where lawmakers have proposed to cut funding for charter schools.

"Anyone, including Rhode Island, who looks to underfund charter schools, they're going to hurt their chances and put themselves at a disadvantage," Duncan told the AP.

Charter schools are controversial because critics, including many teachers, think they drain money and talent from traditional schools.

Yet the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which represents many charter-school teachers, does not oppose them.

Rather, AFT president Randi Weingarten said the administration's push for more charter schools must come with stricter regulation.

"You can't do one without the other," Weingarten said.

Duncan struck the same tone Monday, saying that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate.

"The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist," Duncan said. "Your goal should be quality, not quantity."

Duncan intends to address the larger, 2.7 million-member National Education Association next week at its annual meeting in San Diego.

Weingarten said the charter school movement would expand more rapidly if supporters were more open to collective bargaining.

"The promise of charter schools is that they are small incubators of experimentation, both in terms of instruction and labor relations," she said. "They shouldn't be separate systems."

Steve Barr, founder of Los Angeles-based Green Dot, which opened the Bronx school last fall, has union contracts in all the organization's schools.

"I think it's the only way we're going to improve public education," Barr said. "I don't think you're going to change a public education system that's 100 percent unionized with nonunion labor."

Barr negotiated the Bronx contract with Weingarten, who also heads the United Federation of Teachers. The effort to unionize the Chicago charter school teachers was done in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers.

Even so, the involvement of unions remains contentious.

"There clearly are conflicts between some of the things teachers' unions do and some of the things we know make charter schools effective," said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and publisher of the Washington-based Education Sector think tank.

At this point in the charter school movement, Rotherham said, the jury is out on whether the conflict can be resolved.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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